Friday, January 7, 2011

Courthouses In Turmoil Following Midterm Election Upsets

Grand Juries east, north and south moving against judges, prosecutors

As a social system begins to collapse under its own weight, the leaders of that system begin to needlessly oppress the people. - a well-known axiom

It was hardly noticeable to anyone else in the Commissioners' Courtroom of the Upshur County Courthouse when Mr. Jimmy Caughron silently placed a piece of duct tape over his mouth.

Seated in the front row, Mr. Caughron was mainly visible to the members of the court, which had voted in late September 3 to 1 to disallow the time-honored public comment session of their meetings.

It's a vox populi exercise in which any citizen may draw nigh and let it fly – within reason – to let their local elected officials know about what they think of their official actions or where attention is needed to correct problems with roads and bridges, cops and courts, taxes and other tribulations.

When County Judge Dean Fowler saw Mr. Coughron thus attired, he ordered a bailiff to remove the man from the chamber and escort him from the building as a person who was causing a disturbance.

Video of the incident shows that Mr. Coughron was a silent protester, if nothing else, no matter how vocal he may have become previously, in or out of court.

In subsequent meetings, other members of the public began to appear with their mouths taped shut.

Embarrassing, but not world-shattering.

A tribunal can continue to function, no matter the condition of the mouths of the citizenry, it would seem.

The ecclesiastic courts of The Office of the Inquisition often heard evidence and testimony against accused heretics whose teeth had been pulled and the bloody sockets probed with sharp instruments.

Hard to keep from admitting one's guilt under those conditions. Besides, they have ways to keep you from keeping your mouth shut, in any case.

But in typical tail wags dog fashion, Mr. Coughron's silent protest has led to the indictment of Judge Fowler, Sheriff Anthony Betterton and Commissioner Lloyd Crabtree for official oppression and abuse of power. The offenses are Class A misdemeanors, normally considered catastrophic, but not serious.

Not so this time.

The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct has suspended the judge from hearing probate cases, juvenile causes, mental commitments and misdemeanor criminal cases until the matter is concluded.

District Attorney Billy Byrd took up the case with the Grand Jury and sought the charges without notifying any of the affected officials, according to an attorney who is representing the judge.

“Holding an elected office here is a damn hazardous occupation,” said
Todd Tefteller.

Blog comment sections say that members of the public are reacting to perceived bias on Judge Fowler's part in adjudicating minor criminal cases. They allege he rules harshly against those who have opposed his reelection and leniently toward voters who have supported him through their votes and cash campaign contributions.

It's not his first brush with the law. DA Byrd has previously held investigations into the judge's campaign practices, inquiries in which the judge was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

The Court has since lifted its ban on public comment at its meetings.


A two-year courthouse war in Collin County lit up the north Texas map recently as grand jurors indicted 380th District Court Judge Suzanne Wooten for bribery and at the same time indicted First Assistant District Attorney Greg Davis for tampering with a government record.

It's the culmination of a long and bitter courthouse war in which the DA's office has sought to charge Judge Wooten for her campaign practices and County Court at Law Judge Greg Willis for allegations of irregular authorization of payments to defense attorneys representing indigent defendants.

Local observers with subject matter expertise say lot of the conflict was caused by Judge Wooten's upset victory over an incumbent District Judge, the first time that has happened in the affluent far north Dallas suburb.

The indictments allege that she and three others conspired to funnel money to her primary and general election campaigns. The allegation is that a couple made out six checks payable to the judge's campaign manager in return for favorable rulings.

The indictment of Mr. Davis has had its long-armed ramifications. He had been tapped by newly-elected Republican District Attorney Abel Reyna to become the chief prosecutor at Waco. In the wake of the scandal, he has withdrawn his application to be hired in at Mr. Reyna's newly-organized shop. He won an upset victory over long-term Democratic incumbent John Segrest to follow in his father's footsteps. 10th District Court of Appeals Associate Justice Felipe Reyna was at one time the District Attorney of McLennan County.


The County Attorney filed a civil lawsuit seeking the removal of the County Judge, alleging that on at least four occasions, Dan A. Gattis has committed official misconduct in hiring outside legal counsel to represent the Court.

It's only the latest round in an ongoing war between the two elected officials, in which Jana Duty has complained that all five of the Williamson County Commissioners have hired a member of her staff to represent them by moving more than $100,000 from her budget and putting the money in theirs.

Judge Gattis countered in a written statement, saying that most of her previous allegations had been investigated by the DA's office, the Texas Attorney General's office, the Texas Rangers and the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorney's Office, with no determination of misconduct.

“My hope is that Ms. Duty will refocus her efforts on her duties to collect hot checks, prosecute misdemeanor and juvenile crime, and to represent the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in matters before the courts of Williamson County,” Judge Gattis said in reaction to the lawsuit.

No comments:

Post a Comment